Dear Lily June,
Let’s start with the clear admission of my privilege: I “present” as a cis-gendered female (i.e. the physical manifestations of my gender identity appears to correspond with my biologoical sex) engaged in a committed, heterosexual marriage. Having had you as a result of this heterosexual coupling, I officially enter into “breeder” status. I am considered by my society, with its laws, systems of morality and ethics, and political and socioeconomic institutions to be “normal.”
I used to self-identify as “queer” because, at the heart of the matter, I don’t think there should be ludicrous standards of “normalcy,” against which some are forced to define themselves in clear opposition. But even that was a product of my privilege to some degree–the ability to don an identity that I haven’t authentically experienced for the sake of political argument like one might put on or take off a scarf–and I don’t wish to de-legitimize the identities and experiences of anyone who falls along the LGBTIQ spectrum. I wish to rob no one of their voice, least of all you, Lily, in adding mine to the mix.
But I’m aware, with posts like my previous one, with an arguably “traditional” family structure like ours, and with the still-pervasive (though slowly improving) media insistence on a prevalent or dominant approach to sexuality–namely, married heterosexual reproductive sex within traditional family units–that you won’t be fairly and equally exposed to every variety of identity you might feel fits you. It’s my belief that the more exposure you have to all systems of belief and behavior–political, religious, sexual, etc.–the better informed and more authentic your identity can be.
I want you to be free to be who you are, but I’m aware of my limitations in offering you knowledge into all arenas of who that might be. Say, as is true, Lily, that my favorite color was purple. Say you grew up watching me wear all shades of that color, but that color only. Say I even dressed your father in it, and there were pictures all over the house displaying the two of us in lilac and plum and violet. You might start to feel an inherent pressure to don a lavender blouse or two, and I might even subtly imply that you should by buying one and bringing it home to you. Maybe you’ve heard me talk about wearing red, or maybe I’ve invited a friend over that wears orange. But I’m aware that my practice of owning an all-purple wardrobe could subtly inform your understanding of what a wardrobe should be.
Of course, as readers of this blog have reminded me, you’ll grow up in spite of me. You’ll make your own choices; create your own identity; understand your own self in ways my beliefs and behaviors can’t touch. But for the sake of argument, our culture, if not just your family, will do the same work of sending sometimes implied and sometimes overt messages about what sexuality is and should be. And if/when that happens, if you find your own definitions don’t match up with the versions you’re being shown–or arguably sold–then your life may become more difficult than it needs to be if you can’t understand that you are at the helm of your own sexuality.
That’s what heteronormativity is: a culture’s pervasive display of only one option as “normal”–namely heterosexual sex between two cis-gendered partners of the opposite biological sex–while any other options are labeled “different” or “alternative” lifestyle “choices” instead of authentic and sincerely lived life experiences and identities. It’s like the culture is wearing purple, and is only, at best, tolerant of, and at worst, afraid of, aggressive towards or violent in reaction to those who would wear yellow. And I don’t want the way I raise you to be one more act that forces you into a “color” that doesn’t suit your needs and desires.
So I promise you this: Whoever you inform me that you are, whatever you tell me that you do, whomsoever you decide to share your life, heart and/or simply bed with, I will love you. And if society does not yet accept the choices you’ve made for yourself, I will be an advocate for and ally of your identity, working hard to combat those sociopolitical institutions that would deny you rights, access or privileges based on that self-definition.
Okay, given the multiple layers of privilege I’m working under–I’m white; I’m cis-; I’m educated (sociologically middle class though arguably economically still working poor); I’m heterosexual; I don’t have visually-identifiable functional impairments–I’m going to admit to a bit of naivete.
When my Southern by-and-large late-millennial students would complain that “racism was over” and therefor they had no need to read historical or contemporary literature critiquing racial politics in America, I was crestfallen, crushed, and confused. How could they not see that even a classroom still predominantly comprised of affluent white males rejecting the texts of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison on the basis that “racism was over” was, in fact, racist?
And yet, perhaps because I have worked in academia for so long or because I have put blinders on to identities outside of the comfortable one I exist in, I lost touch with the fact that it’s still hard to “come out” (and even that terminology is problematic and fraught, still being associated with the imposed metaphorical closet of secrecy).
I was reminded of the dangers and difficulties of doing so when your Grandma Raelyn called me the other day to talk about one of Denny’s friends. This friend of my seventeen-year-old brother’s had been isolating, self-injuring and threatening suicide, in no small part because he had decided to participate in National Coming out Day on Sunday, October 11, and the pressure of “confessing” his sexuality to his parents had caused mounting stress to overwhelm him. He was sure they would reject him and his still-burgeoning sexual identity.
Even while I talked to my mom about strategies for preventing self-harm (the kind I’d once been engaged in during high school), I had no idea how to speak to the difficulty of “coming out.” It had been kind of a “family joke” for a while that they’d been waiting for me to do so (given my non-traditional approaches to dress, hair, and gender) and that I had never done so. I’d even once been the prime suspect in an incident of web browsing involving a search for the word “lesbian,” but my name had been cleared when an internet history revealed the culprit–actually my, at the time, teenaged stepbrother Todd–had misspelled the word as “lesbion” (a mistake, given my Type A personality, no one believed me capable of).
But it shouldn’t have been a joke. And that there is a burden to “confess” sexuality–as though it were a sin and not an identity–are things that remind me that I have no idea what it’s like to really be LGBTIQ in America today. I have no idea what it’s like to feel a constant disconnect between who society’s telling you that you should be and who you feel you actually are.
I admit to having been a proud peacock progressive when the decision came down from the Supreme Court in June of this year that no state in the nation could ban same-sex marriage. I was confused when my gay and transgendered friends weren’t equally celebratory. They would reiterate some variation on “It’s a won battle, but not a won war.”
It didn’t occur to me at the time that the realm of sexuality and morality politics in America has always pushed toward marriage as a “norm” and to allow same-sex couples to wed only further ingrains our culture with that “norm” instead of challenging that the best context in which to engage in sexuality, reproduction, family-construction, or child-rearing might not be a monogamous legally-sanctioned long-term relationship at all. What will happen to those queer individuals who choose not to marry, because they reject the problematic patriarchal foundations inherent to the institution of marriage in the first place? They will be further ostracized as pariahs now, dismissed as those who don’t willingly accept that “love is love.”
In America, Lily, the culture sends the message that sex can’t be just sex without it being somehow morally reprehensible or ethically and economically irresponsible. And that, to me, is a problem, even while I have a clearly demonstrated preference for the pairing of sexuality with romantic love, even while I espouse the great virtues of having met and married your father, and even while I achieved what is considered to be the pinnacle of “success” to a heterosexual female: creating new life in you.
Lily, I am torn as a modern feminist intellectual between the feeling that you are the greatest joy in my life and the fear of how dangerous it is to self-define for a woman by her husband and children. And you, my child, will be reared in that confusion, but you’ll also be raised with my honest admission of it at least.
Because I don’t know a lot about heteronormativity as a lived experience (i.e. I don’t know what it’s like to have to internalize pressures to conform and assimilate), I did the only thing I know how to do in situations where I’m confronted with my own ignorance. I started reading. For the past two days, I’ve plowed through some touchstone texts of queer theory, and I can’t say I always comprehended what I was reading. But I’m trying, on the possibility that, eventually, you might need me to know more than I do.
The term itself–“heteronormativity”–derives from Michael Warner’s 1991 piece “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet” (so I may be striking an iron that’s very cold, indeed, and if this discussion, by the time you read it, is brutally archaic, forgive your mother for being decades behind the times). He describes, in a way that even I could understand, why, for instance, Denny’s friend might be having such trouble with his sexuality:
“Every person who comes to a queer self-understanding knows in one way or another that her stigmatization is intricated with gender, with the family, with notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep culture norms about the bearing of the body. Being queer means fighting about these issues all the time, locally and piecemeal but always with consequences. It means being able, more or less articulately, to challenge the common understanding of what gender difference means, or what the state is for, or what ‘health’ entails, or what would define fairness, or what a good relation to the planet’s environment would be. Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer. (Alternately many people invest the better parts of their lives to avoid such self-understanding and the social reflection it would imply)” (6).
Reading that alone is daunting. Living it? I can’t imagine. Or maybe I just don’t want to, because to imagine it–to tell you earnestly that I will love you regardless of your sexuality and sexual identity–means to encourage you to possibly carry all of this sociosexual baggage at once. And even saying I will help you just means I will fight for a different system of baggage transport. It doesn’t mean that I can take even one of those bags from you. And that, Lily, terrifies me.
It terrifies me because, as Warner later writes, to our culture
“the idea that the emergence of more queers might be a desirable outcome remains unthinkable” and “Heterosexual ideology, in combination with a potent ideology about gender and identity in maturation, therefore bears down in the heaviest and often deadliest ways on those with the least resources to combat it: queer children and teens. In a culture dominated by talk of ‘family values,’ the outlook is grim for any hope that child-rearing institutions of home and state can become less oppressive” (9).
It seems to me (and who the hell am I?) that this may be the very problem of seeing marriage equality as equal to sexuality equality: It still puts an undue emphasis on the family unit, which many in the LGBTIQ community openly eschew, in no small part, perhaps, because “family” is an institution that often failed its members most, being the first microcosm of the state to reject their identities.
This is why, to me, this is a family issue first, one it is not just an option but my responsibility as your mother to address with you. This society is crossing into new territory every day, and yet, even its pedestrian crossing signs reiterate that males carry briefcases, women purses, and they must walk together as a unit. Am I making too much of that simple but iconic imagery? Maybe.
But then, it’s only too easy for me, and the vast majority of heterosexuals, to let that sign blur into the background of our lives, when in fact, to a member of the LGBTIQ community, it could be just one more reminder in a series of everyday battles that they aren’t walking down Normal Street. And that’s not okay by me, Lily. And even if you choose to be a heterosexual female who engages in traditional family roles in terms of reproduction and child-rearing, I hope it’s not okay with you, either.
- Warner, Michael (1991), “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet”. Social Text; 9 (4 ): 3–17
8 thoughts on “The Talk, Part 8 of 10,000–In Which I Introduce Heteronormativity”
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Excellent article. So honest too.
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Thanks again, Corrie.
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I always learn something from you, dearlilyjune. It’s mesmerizing to read how carefully and intentionally you speak with your daughter. Your fears for her, your desire to protect her, all the while wanting her to find her own way. I am fearful of the responsibility of parenting; most fearful though of having to raise a daughter in a world that will, in many ways be defined for her already; fearful of being ill-equipped to address the challenges she will inevitably face, because either I faced them or failed to conquer them. I wonder what I will teach her about loving herself, when so many times, I have self-harmed and much, much more. But in reading, I am more convinced that perhaps, it might not be the worst thing to learn and re-learn along with her.
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Beautiful, and sweet.
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This was enlightening for me. I still don’t fully understand the complications and struggles my father went through since he does not like to talk much about it, but I’d like to. I’d like to know more about what it must have been like for him to force himself into a life that he didn’t feel authentically fit him or maybe he did feel like it fit him in the beginning, growing up in what he thought was the only way to have a family and what a struggle it was when he ultimately realized it wasn’t completely right for him. I will have to study this more so I can be more sensitive to his struggle.
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I’m still learning, too, and I can only imagine. My husband’s mother went through something very similar to what your dad went through, and I just want Lily to know that love in our house is absolutely unconditional. Maybe that will help her to make her decisions based on her authentic self, rather than a persona she feels she has to don for her family/the public.
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